Insiders On Lieberman’s Appointment as Israel’s Defense Minister

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shocked the political world on Wednesday by offering hardliner Avigdor Lieberman to join his narrow coalition government and be appointed as defense minister.

For the past several days it appeared that the stage was set for Isaac Herzog, head of the opposition and chairman of the Zionist Union party, to join the government and head Israel’s diplomacy. But in a surprise move, Lieberman, who heads the 6-member Yisrael Beitenu party, convened a press conference on Wednesday to announce he was ready to negotiate a pact with Netanyahu if he’s given the Defense Ministry. An hour later, the two leaders met and agreed on basic terms to sign a coalition agreement.

The apparent appointment may also come as a surprise to those observing U.S.-Israel affairs, especially those anticipating movement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Obama has stressed he will not be a lame-duck president, and questions remain about whether the White House will attempt another push for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the final year. According to Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat who participated in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following the Camp David summit in 2000, there’s no doubt that at some point between now and January 2017, Obama will seek to outline his own version of the Bill Clinton parameters before leaving office.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly mediated between Netanyahu and Herzog, and also initiated the Egyptian president’s speech urging Israel to move forward in the peace process with the Palestinians.

But according to Dan Arbell, a 25 year veteran of the Israeli Foreign Service and a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, the purpose of Netanyahu’s move was not about U.S.-Israel affairs. “It’s much more a domestic-oriented move,” Arbell told Jewish Insider on Wednesday. “I think, first and foremost, it was a move to strengthen and consolidate his coalition, ensuring his continued premiership and pushing forward his legislative agenda. He wanted Herzog to broaden the coalition and if he has Herzog on board it might help vis-à-vis the U.S. – the Obama administration, and the BDS movement etc. But that was not the main goal of this move. After realizing that Herzog cannot deliver or cannot agree to his conditions, he realized he needs to switch gear while he’s uphill.”

Lieberman’s appointment, Arbell says, allows Netanyahu to continue governing “based on his natural inclination, which is a right of center agenda – a tougher stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, also signaling that settlement activity continues.”

If this works out, Aaron David Miller, an American Middle East analyst and Vice President for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says, “Netanyahu will have a bullet-proof coalition to take him through the next year or so without fear of being pressured by the United States, Herzog or his own right-wing partners. He sends a powerful message to the IDF that he won’t brook dissent; steels himself against any pressure from the French, the Europeans, or Washington on the peace process; and now has a comfortable majority which could conceivably carry him through 2018 when he would become the longest governing prime minister since David Ben-Gurion.”

But “the price he pays for coalition stability — or so-called peace at home — is likely a continued deterioration of Israel’s image and credibility abroad,” Miller told Jewish Insider, “and handing the most sensitive portfolio in the government to an ideologue and rival whom Netanyahu recently described as not even qualified to be a military analyst.”

Pinkas is less concerned, and more so less surprised by Lieberman’s apparent appointment. “The Defense Ministry is a strong, entrenched and almost self-functioning system, so the transition will be smooth,” he asserted. “Obviously, this is an extremely right-wing government and the addition of Mr. Lieberman makes no substantive difference.”

The coalition shakeup comes with a price on a personal level. If appointed, Lieberman would replace Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, a member of the Likud party. Yaalon was closely aligned with Netanyahu’s worldview. But he managed maintained a good working relationship with U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, as well as Chuck Hagel. Lieberman, however, had a rocky start and a cold relationship with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He also has closer ties with Moscow, America’s geopolitical adversary.

“In contrast to the welcome mat that [Russian President] Vladimir Putin extends to him, he has been virtually persona non grata as far as the Obama Administration is concerned,” Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense in President George W. Bush’s administration told Jewish Insider via email. “Clearly, given the mutual admiration of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, Lieberman would be very welcome in a Trump Administration Pentagon. Whether that would be the case if Hillary Clinton is elected is quite another matter. Lieberman’s ties to a Clinton-appointed defense secretary could more closely resemble the brittle relationship between Ariel Sharon and Caspar Weinberger.”

“Maybe Carter, who is the ultimate gentleman, will invite Lieberman to the Pentagon. But if he does, the White House will surely gnash its teeth until Lieberman heads back to Tel Aviv,” he added.

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